Consumer Co-Operatives and Perceptions of Food Safety: Shaping Markets in Post-Fukushima Japan

Consumer Co-Operatives and Perceptions of Food Safety: Shaping Markets in Post-Fukushima Japan

Catherine Burns (Griffith University, Australia), Kumiko Katayama (Griffith University, Australia) and Robin E. Roberts (Griffith University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8063-8.ch011
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This paper examines consumer co-operatives and members' perceptions of food safety. Japan is an ideal place to study given it is undoubtedly the ‘best example of a successful consumer co-operative sector in the postwar period' (Birchall, 2002, p. 79). While some co-operatives have evolved into a considerable political force, not all consumer co-operatives are as large or as politically active. This study qualitatively explores the views of the members of two small, less politically active co-operatives in Tokushima. Of particular relevance are the types of produce being consumed by members, and why (and how) purchasing behaviour has been shaped by food safety concerns, post-Fukushima.
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Japan has been described as the ‘land of co-operatives’ (Thompson, 2008). According to the International Cooperative Alliance (2012), the presence of Japanese co-operatives in daily life is unsurpassed by any other country, and their economic impact is substantial. Within Japan’s co-operative sector, 74% are consumer co-operatives, constituting 80.4% of combined annual sales. Japanese consumer co-operatives consist of more than 27 million members, comprising 49% of total households (Kurimoto, 2015) and an annual turnover of US$25 billion1 in 2014 (JCCU 2015). Specialist in socio-economics and the global co-operative movement, Johnston Birchall (2002, p. 72) thus claims, ‘The Japanese co-operative movement is, on several criteria, the most successful in the world.’ The significance of Japan’s consumer co-operatives also extends beyond the domestic market. They are significant to global suppliers because, as overall third largest retailer (Thompson, 2008), they are both a competitive force in the Japanese retail food sector and a distribution network for imported products. As such they have demonstrated strength in preventing importation of foods that did not meet specified standards (even though compliant with World Health Organisation standards) (Jussaume, 1991, p. 33).

While Japanese co-operatives boomed in conjunction with Japan’s economic success in the 1980s, the proceeding economic downturn, misnamed Japan’s ‘lost decade’ according to Metzler (2012), prompted predictions of decline (Jussaume, 1991; Ashkenazi and Jacob, 2000; Jussaume, Hisano, and Taniguchi, 2000; Parker, 2005). Yet these predictions have not been realised. Membership has expanded and revenue has continued to increase, albeit at modest rates of approximately two to three per cent per year. A major reason for the continued growth in Japanese consumer co-operatives is concern for food safety and security. Numerous food risks resulting from early industrialisation, imported foods, and domestic scandals or disasters (most recently the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in 2011), have reinforced perceptions of a ‘Precarious Japan’, the title of Japan scholar, Ann Allison’s most recent book (2013). These factors have drawn attention to the problems of food safety and security. Consumers have become acutely aware of the fact that ‘Japan is the world’s largest importer of food and approximately 60% of Japanese calorie intake comes from imported food’ (Tanaka, 2008, p. 574).

The strength and uniqueness of Japanese consumer co-operatives has resulted in an emerging body of literature, but surprisingly little attention has been paid to the motivations and views of members, despite the fact that they own these businesses (highlighted in Birchall, 2011) title and preferred term of ‘Member-Owned Business’ rather than ‘co-operative’). Much of the existing literature also focuses on a select few very large, politically active co-operatives, which have been treated as exemplars. The purpose of this study is to explore these gaps to garner implications for food marketers. We examine the perceptions and purchasing practices of consumer co-operative members located in a small regional city, with particular attention to meanings of food safety following the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The first section of the paper provides a focused literature review on Japanese co-operatives, food safety, and concepts and policies informing the localisation of food consumption in Japan. This is followed by an outline of the research methodology then a presentation of qualitative findings and implications.

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